The best books about the Pacific War



While many view the World War II as a fight against Nazi Germany and their machinations, it is often forgotten that an important part of it played out in the Pacific as well, despite the number of casualties being three times of that in Europe. Good news is that many good books describe this chapter in very fine detail.

1. "Japan: 1941," by Eri Hotta

One of the best titles out there describing the war in Pacific is EriHotta’s ‘Japan: 1941 (Knopf Doubleday, 2103)’. It talks about Japan’s ambitions to defeat America’s vast industrial power and resources in an attempt to break their economic embargo.  The hope that the Pearl Harbor defeat will make the Americans demand a peace treaty has soon proven to be a huge miscalculation which lead to Japan’s plans of expansion to Asia into a failure, ultimately costing them the war.

2. "The Rape of Nanking," by Irish Chang

Even though the role of China in the WWII was rather huge, it is not considered so today. However, it’s been speculated that over 20 million Chinese died during the worst war in history. The number is greater than the casualties of the US, Japan, Great Britain and even Germany combined! There are many accounts of all kinds of atrocities at work by all sides, but the Japanese cruelty is considered unparalleled.

Iris Chang’s The Rape of Nanking (Basic Books, 1997) tells a story of one of the worst massacres that happened after capturing the city by the Japanese – some 200,000 people were slaughtered within just 4 days!

The accuracy of the book’s story has been questioned by a few of historians; however, Chang has managed to bring massive attention to the role Chines played during the WWII.

3. "At Dawn We Slept," by Gordon Prange

Historian Gordon Prange spent more than 35 years studying the attack on Pearl Harbor but died before publishing the results. Two coauthors finished the work and At Dawn We Slept (by Gordon Prange with Donald M. Goldstein and Katherine Dillon, Easton Press, 1981) is still the best account of how the war started. The book analyzes the attack in detail and answers a question that has long puzzled historians: How could the US have been caught so unprepared? Readers may not agree with the conclusion – that US commanders on the scene were inattentive – but the depth of the research makes a compelling case.

4. "Miracle at Midway,' with Gordon Prange with Donald M. Goldstein and Katherine Dillon

In April 1942, the US learned that Japan planned to invade Midway Island and, in doing so, hoped to lure the battered American fleet into battle so they could finish it off. Instead, planes from American aircraft carriers found and sank four Japanese carriers. The crushing defeat marked the end of Japan’s expansion in the Western Pacific. Prange’s other major contribution to the literature on the Pacific War is the wide-ranging study Miracle at Midway (by Gordon Prange with Donald M. Goldstein and Katherine Dillon, McGraw-Hill, 1982).  Once again, the question that interests the authors is why it happened: The answer they offer is good intelligence work, courage, highly trained pilots, and luck.

5. "Silent Victory," by Clay Blair

While aircraft carriers played a central role in the Pacific, the majority of Japanese ship losses came at the hands of US submarines. Clay Blair’s Silent Victory (J.B. Lippincott Co., 1975) is a comprehensive review of the role played by the “silent service.”  Written with candor and verve, Blair details the accomplishments of individual submarines as well as the more controversial aspects of the undersea war – such as the faulty torpedoes that hampered the Americans early in the war.

6. "Flights of Passage: Reflections of a World War II Aviator," by Samuel Hynes

Among the many young Americans who found themselves fighting in the Pacific was 18-year old Samuel Hynes from Minnesota who became a Marine pilot and flew more than 100 missions.  Hynes, later a Princeton professor, is a gifted writer and his memoir about the war (Flights of Passage: Reflections of a World War II Aviator, Naval Institute Press, 1988) alternately conveys nostalgia, sorrow, humor, and humility. While focused entirely on his own experiences, this story surely reflects what it was like for a generation of young men who, in his words, “Grew up on active duty.”

7. "Flags of Our Fathers," by James Bradley

Dislodging Japanese troops from their island fortresses was a ferocious and bloody undertaking. Iwo Jima is particularly notable in this regard – of the 20,000 Japanese troops stationed on the atoll, all but 200 died because they preferred death to surrender. James Bradley’s Flags of Our Fathers  (with Ron Powers, Bantam Books, 2000) focuses on the famous flag raising on Mt. Suribachi. But it also illustrates how the savage fighting affected the American soldiers who fought there after they returned home. Unsparing and deeply moving, Bradley’s book reminds us that post-traumatic stress syndrome was a serious – if little recognized – danger long before it had a name.

8. "Retribution: The Battle for Japan, 1944-1945," by Max Hastings

By the summer of 1944, it was clear that Japan would be defeated. The only question was how long it would take and how many lives would be lost.  British military historian Max Hastings’s Retribution: The Battle for Japan, 1944-1945 (Knopf, 2007) summarizes the multi-faceted land, air, and sea engagements of the war’s last year and the death and devastation that ensued. A single fire-bombing of Tokyo in March 1945, for example, killed around 100,000 people and destroyed 16 square miles of the city. Hastings reviews the still controversial decision to drop the atomic bombs and argues in forceful and compelling fashion that doing so ultimately saved lives.

9. "The War in the Pacific," by John Costello

John Costello’s The Pacific War (Harper Perennial, 1982) examines the entire history of the war against Japan, from the pre-war years to the surrender in Tokyo Bay. The book is comprehensive, coherent, and compulsively readable. It remains the single best assessment of the war with Japan.

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